Russian spacecraft fleets have been busy the last few months: With the U.S. space-shuttle program closing for good in July 2011, Russia’s Soyuz and Progress spacecraft were the only vehicles left for human crews from Russia, the United States, or just about any other country to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) and back. New options may soon take wing, however. The United States, Europe, and China are all devising new space-flight vehicles of their own, with test flights for some new models maybe taking place as early as 2012.
Feb. 7, 2012, is the target date for private space-rocket company Space Exploration Technologies (a.k.a. “SpaceX”) to conduct a demonstration launch of its new Dragon spacecraft. The craft will depart from Earth and dock with the ISS. It will not have any humans on board, but SpaceX anticipates that a successor mission in 2014 will, pending a little more product development and fine tuning.
“While our first missions to the ISS will be to transport cargo, both Falcon 9 (a SpaceX launch vehicle) and Dragon were designed to ultimately transport astronauts. Every trip we make to the ISS from this point forward gets us closer to that goal,” reads a SpaceX statement.
In May, NASA approved a proposed design for a future Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, a hoped-for new vehicle to fly astronauts beyond earth orbit. An unmanned flight test of Orion is expected in 2014.
And in September, NASA announced the design of a new Space Launch System, a heavy-launch rocket to lift the Orion and other spacecraft into space. Although this new launch system is still being developed, NASA is already looking forward to it providing "an entirely new national capability for human exploration beyond Earth's orbit."
Europe’s engineers are also at work on new means for flying people into space. The European Space Agency (ESA) does not have a “crew transportation system” of its own just yet, but the management hopes to develop one in the future by using ISS as a target destination and takeoff point for experimental shuttle craft.
The design for future ESA craft’s design could derive much from the Advanced Reentry Vehicle, an unmanned spacecraft the ESA has already approved for flying cargo from the ISS back to Earth.
Like with any new spacecraft, ESA must first master the engineering before it will chance a human crew on it. So the agency is working on unmanned vehicles that can launch into space, conduct missions, and then reenter the atmosphere and land safely. Its engineers are placing some hope on an unmanned Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) reentry vehicle, which will undergo a test atmospheric reentry in 2013.
“The significant European space transportation background (patiently built through decades of activities) provides the opportunity to deploy an operational system,” reads an ESA statement.
China, meanwhile, is blazing its own, China-centric trail into space. The China National Space Administration (China’s official space agency) has two human flights planned in 2012 to the Tiangong-1 Space Lab, a China-built mini space station that’s been orbiting Earth since September 2011.
China set the precursor in November when Shenzou-8, an unmanned Chinese space vehicle, launched into space and docked with Tiangong-1. This in-space docking of spacecraft to space lab was a first in Chinese space history.
The pair of upcoming 2012 missions, named Shenzou-9 and Shenzou-10, will go the next step: They will convey one human crew each to the orbiting lab. Those successes will lead into China’s construction of a brand-new 100-ton orbiting Earth Lab space station by 2020, and the commencement of routine human missions to that.
This array of space-flight R&D is timely, as questions are rising over whether Roscosmos (the official Russian space agency) is a reliable space transit provider in the first place. On December 23, Vladimir Popovkin, head of Roscosmos, told news reporters that his agency “is suffering a crisis.”
He said this while discussing a recent Russian satellite mission that had crashed mere minutes after takeoff when its Soyuz rocket system failed. It was the fifth time in 13 months that mechanical failure had doomed a Russian space mission.
Thankfully, all the failed missions were strictly robotic ones. No human explorers died. But if equipment failures are wrecking this many robotic craft, then couldn’t a similar fate sooner or later befall a craft that has humans on board? Roscosmos evidently feared as much in August when, following one Soyuz rocket crash, the agency and NASA agreed to suspend human flights to the ISS for two months. Investigators subsequently fixed the rocket systems, but those two months still amounted to a highly inconvenient interruption in the station’s ongoing research missions.
Since the 1950s, Russia has been a world leader in the human quest to explore and understand deep space, and the world owes Russia for it. But if the world is going to continue to partner with Russia on spaceborne endeavors, then Roscosmos will need to prove that the human explorers who board its craft will not be needlessly putting their lives on the line.
Specific concerns over Roscosmos aside, though, the global array of new R&D into new space transit options surely holds great value in itself. An open market of service choices beats a single-provider monopoly in practically any transit system on Earth. Surely the same would hold true in space?
It’s hard to argue otherwise, given the high costs and immense technical challenges that getting to space and back presents. In low-Earth orbit, anything that one nation can do, a community of nations can do better.